A painful budget for schools, not state officials

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Governor Patrick signed a $27.6 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, touting it as “balanced, responsible and on time.” Notwithstanding all the cries of pain from the state budgeters, it represents an increase over the 2010 budget, albeit of only 0.2 percent. Most families and most localities would take that deal. The state can’t handle it. The Guv has put off $300 million in debt payments, drained the near bone-dry rainy day fund further and set us up on a cliff now that the federal stimulus dollars are all spent. The mismatch of revenues and spending (often called in deep sonorous tones “The Structural Deficit” by budgetistas) remains.

Lots of eyes are focused on implications for legal and illegal immigrant populations, and these issues are important. So is keeping the safety from being shred to tatters. I want to focus on that trivial matter called education, which after all, Dear Budgetistas, does account for $9 billion in state and local funding.

Let’s start with a little background.

The landmark Ed Reform law was passed in 1993. From 1993 to 2002, we got charter schools (and the many district answers to charters such as pilots), high academic standards, a strong accountability system, and teacher and student testing. We also got state education aid to localities that was growing at 7.1% above the rate of inflation. That was unsustainable but since 2002 the promise of funding, with the departure of strong legislative leadership, has become a yawn for everybody from the Guv to the lowliest of reps.

Governor Romney met foundation budget targets, but just barely. Governor Patrick initially met them only by plugging the holes with federal dollars; with this budget he does not even meet those targets.

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the newly minted executive office of education continue to share in none of the pain. That says a lot about the state’s inability to take its eyes off of its navel and see what is happening outside the Dome.

Pioneer has set up a website called MassOpenBooks.org, which provides all state employee salaries and pensions for folks to view and analyze. It’s part of our Government Transparency Initiative. Using this tool you can see that from 2002 to 2009, even as education aid to localities flattened and then decreased in real terms, the DESE’s appetite continued to grow.

In pure overall numbers, it gained only a few positions (from 517 [513 filled] to 521) over the period. But consider this:

  • 25 new position categories were created, giving any analyst a sense of more diffuse and unfocused activity;
  • 1 additional highly-compensated deputy commissioner was hired
  • 1 additional (again, well-compensated) associate commissioner was hired
  • There was a 40% increase in state funds spent on salaries, even as the mean salary for mid-range employees such as education specialists went down or were relatively flat (Ed Specialists/D went from $73,000 to $70,000, and Ed Specialists/C went from $64,000 to $67,000)

If you add in the newly minted Education Secretary’s position and Executive Office of Education, which carried a cost of $1 million on salaries and an additional 9-10 new positions, we come to an overall increase of 50% in state funds spent on state education office salaries since 2002.

All that, as we ratchet back on support for local schools, where the important stuff (teachers teaching and students learning) happens? How is it possible that the state budget grows by 0.2 percent even as localities take another 4 percent hit? After all the hits they have taken in the past two years?

Once again this year, the new state budget cuts deeper into special education funding and, oddly given the educational opportunities that the Governor himself had, it cuts funding for METCO, which gives inner city kids in Boston and Springfield an opportunity to attend suburban schools. Guess who will pick up those costs? Yes, local communities.

And even as there are numerous stories about executed or impending layoffs (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 among others), the DESE and the Education Secretary advance
unbudgeted and unlegislatively authorized “readiness centers,” which, over time, will require more state staffers while teachers and local budgets continue to get the squeeze.

We’ve been here before. The DESE is trying to recreate the regional offices it had once upon a time which were shut down during the Weld Administration. Someone tell me if I am missing something. These regional offices were put in mothballs and Massachusetts earned its way to the top of the charters on student performance, and also to international competitiveness in math and science. Just why are we doing this? And why sacrifice local education dollars to do it?

The logic of the state government is to see its own inside-the-Dome initiatives as of paramount importance and to protect funding for these activities. My view is different. The state should set policy and hold localities accountable for results. But it should push as much money as possible out to the schools because they are the folks doing the important work of teaching and getting results.

We need an audit of the DESE. Perhaps the new hire as CFO at DESE could work with the state auditor to get it done. In case you are interested in applying, the new CFO position listing is here. I hear that state government work is pretty steady. No risk of the kinds of cuts we are seeing and going to see more of at the local level.

The analysis mentioned above can be downloaded here: DESE 2002 v 2009.xls

Crossposted at Boston.com’s “Rock The Schoolhouse” blog.